As an author and instructor on writing, I’ve learned there are a few immutable laws of memoir every story benefits from. I call them the immutable laws because they are true and timeless. Even if you aren’t writing a memoir or autobiography, all protagonists need these beats in their story to keep the pages turning. They keep the reader committed. I find they also help me as an author stay true to my characters, eagerly writing till they reach their journey’s end. I hope you find these rules helpful to guide your stories so they will be inspiring to readers.
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Every great story is about transformation
The first one is that every great story is about transformation. The whole reason we want to go on this journey is to see what your character learns about life and can teach us. We want to see how a flawed human can change by experiencing the school of hard knocks because it gives us faith that, somehow, we can too.
I love how Blake Snyder, author of Save the Cat says that when your hero has a lot of growing to do, it’s more satisfying at the end to see just how far he/she has come. That growth is called “arc,” and you can think of it like the flight of an arrow – the farther back you pull, the more potential energy there is for the journey. In other words, the more flawed your character is in the beginning the more payoff there is in the end when change happens. Don’t be afraid to give your character room to improve – it’s essential to a good story.
Problems turn pages
The second immutable law of storytelling is that problems turn pages. In real life, I’m not a big fan of problems. I’d like things to be smooth and copasetic. But in a story, if you don’t have a problem on every page, it’s boring. That’s the stuff you want to edit out and cut.
Why are problems so interesting? I think it’s because of curiosity. When there’s a problem, we can’t help but wonder how our hero is going to get out of it. And so we keep turning pages to see how it ends. But without a problem, it’s basically just a news report.
In summary, every story needs a central problem or a central conflict. Our characters need a challenge to overcome.
Emotion carries the tale
The next rule is that emotion carries the tale. Now, you don’t want to be all one emotion or another. You want to mix it up with humor and sadness, joy and struggle, and ideally right after each other or in the same story. Some of the most poignant moments happen when you’re grieving and then somebody says something and everyone bursts into laughter. Telling a funny story or a bit of humor keeps it from being all one note. It makes it more interesting.
I tend to be a little on the tender side about stories. I can make you cry. Like, if you want to cry, I’m your girl. But it’s important to put in that funny stuff too, especially if you want to reach young people with your story. Want to speak to kids? Start with humor.
Tell the truth
The other one is, tell the truth. There’s a lot in that phrase “tell the truth.” Whose version of the truth? We delve into that tough topic in this guide, “Sensitive Subjects.” Please click to download for free. But as a fundamental rule – tell the truth, your truth. But in short, don’t like, and honor the emotional truth of a situation.
The reader decides what it means
Finally, the reader gets to decide what it means. You get to say what happened to you and what it meant to you. You’re you. You have the full right to do that. But refrain from telling the reader what they should think. Let them figure it out. That is because a poignant thing that happens when you write what you learned: the reader will get out of it what they need. It will naturally be about what they are experiencing and what they need to hear in that moment. So give them space to do that. Don’t beat the reader over the head with the moral of the story.
And if they get a totally different meaning from it, then that’s wonderful, right? That’s what they needed.
Not all laws are meant to be broken
Whether this is your first book or you’re climbing that mountain again, I hope you’ll take these laws to heart. Apply them to your work and you’ll be amazed – I know I’ve been! These laws lead to sharing stories that inspire and ring true to your readers. They helped turn around my own story, which you can read about here, and that’s why I continually revisit them. Surely, the immutable laws of memoir will make the great story you’re already writing even better.
Rhonda Lauritzen is the founder and an author at Evalogue.Life – Tell Your Story. Rhonda lives to hear and write about people’s lives. She believes that when you tell your story, it changes the ending., She and her husband Milan restored an 1890 Victorian in Ogden. She especially enjoys unplugging in nature. Check out her books: How to Storyboard, and Every Essential Element. Most recently she was the writing coach of bestselling author, Rob A. Gentile, who wrote Quarks of Light, A Near-Death Experience: What I Saw That Opened My Heart.
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